For the first time since 2019, Rutgers-Newark held an in-person convocation, welcoming 1,845 undergraduate students who were urged by Chancellor Nancy Cantor to be “dreamers and doers.’’ 

“Dreaming is the first step toward doing,’’ Cantor told the Class of 2026 at a ceremony held in the Golden Dome Athletic and Fitness Center. 

The event was punctuated by loud cheers and the sound of cowbells, which were handed out to students before the ceremony, along with tee-shirts celebrating the dreams of Paul Robeson, a 1919 Rutgers graduate and legendary actor, athlete and activist. The commemorative t-shirts were designed by student graphic artists Yasmine Bacon and James Negri, who graduated in May from the School of Arts and Sciences. The Union and Essex Marching Band drumline also gave a rousing performance at the ceremony. 

In addition to undergraduate students, the university is welcoming 893 graduate students, although numbers are incomplete since some students are still in the process of registering. Cantor noted that 13 percent of incoming undergraduates are Newark residents. 

She described the history of Newark, where RU-N is an anchor institution, as one filled with idealism and activism.

“Our home city is steeped in dreaming–dreams of justice, opportunity and equity–and doing,’’ she announced.

She listed examples of Newark’s celebration of freedom and civil rights, and its connection to the university. In 2018, RU-N named its athletic field in honor of Frederick Douglass, who delivered a speech on the site in1849 at the invitation of a church where the Black congregation were active in fighting slavery. This year, the field, where the Plane Street Colored Church stood, was recognized by the National Park Service as an Underground Railroad site.

Cantor also encouraged students to visit the city’s recently renamed Harriet Tubman Square, where a monument to the anti-slavery leader will be completed this fall, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg Hall on the RU-N campus. Bader Ginsberg taught women’s rights law at RU-N in the early days of her career.

Cantor reminded the crowd that, now more than ever, conviction coupled with action are crucial to building a better world. She expressed confidence RU-N students are up to the task.

“Think of the road still left to travel, a road to equity and equal rights under the law,’’ she said. “Dreamers who are doers are exactly what we need today.’’

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who also spoke at the ceremony, echoed Cantor’s call. “In the past two or three years, the world has seen how small it really is, how vulnerable we really are, how deep inequity has taken hold in our communities,’’ he said, adding that the students seated before him were cause for hope.

“A lot of people are fighting desperately to change those things. My prayer is that a lot of those people are sitting right here,’’ he said. “So many people are depending  on you.”

He reminded the students to be “brilliant, but more important, courageous.’’ 

Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway also spoke at the event. “You are now members of the Rutgers family, and I hope that as part of this family, you will find the coming years challenging, stimulating and even unsettling,’’ he said.

Holloway urged the class to embrace uncertainty as a potentially liberating force. “There is something emancipatory about admitting you don’t know your next move,’’ he said.

“Explore, wonder, assent to change your mind,’’ said Holloway.

The keynote address was by Rutgers-Newark Provost Jeffrey Robinson, a business school professor, who empathized with freshmen at the start of the semester, when making friends and adjusting to classes can feel intimidating. But he reassured them. “You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.’’

Robinson recalled his own journey to Rutgers in the late 1980s, when he arrived wearing “a high top fade, acid washed jeans and Adidas.’’

That year, he met classmate Randal Pinkett, with whom he started a company and who became a lifelong friend. Pinkett, a well-known entrepreneur, also became his co-author, most recently collaborating with Robinson on his book Black Faces in High Places: 10 Strategic Actions for Black Professionals to Reach the Top and Stay There.

Robinson told students that they, too, would find friends and collaborators that could last a lifetime, just like he did.

Also speaking at the ceremony was Student Body President Nurahoda Elsaid, who urged students to get involved and make their voices heard. 

Student speaker Matthew Mei, who attends Rutgers Business School in Newark, reminded students not to be discouraged by obstacles they encounter and to take advantage of many avenues of support RU-N offers students.